Judging the Judge: Which is the Real Aaron?

Will the real Aaron Judge please stand up? We all know how good he was before the All-Star Break and how far he seems to have tumbled since then, but which version of the Judge is the one we’re going to see for the rest of the season? Or the rest of his career? Today I dive into the stats to try and answer that question for Judge owners and fans using sabermetrics and GIFs of Judge’s swing, as well as review a craft brew for your enjoyment.

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(Photo Credit: Robert Sabo/NY Post)

The Transformation

In his MLB debut in late 2016 Aaron Judge struggled. Hard. Despite hitting a home run in his first big league at bat, Judge struck out a ghastly 42 times in 84 tries to the tune of a .179 Batting Average, low enough to make even Chris Carter blush. He had the power, but did he have the the ability to adjust? To become a complete hitter?

Judge worked hard during the offseason with Yankee staff to improve his swing, and found the solution to his woes by adjusting his leg kick with Alan Cockrell’s assistance. Then it was off to the races. Judge exploded to lead the AL (and MLB) in virtually all batting categories after the first weeks of the 2017 season. The power had always been there, but now the pure hitting was, too. The plate discipline was dramatically better as his strikeouts decreased and his walks shot up almost as fast as his batting average.

But still, Judge did not forget how it all started. Every day Judge looks at a note pinned to his phone that simply says: .179. Why? To remind him where he started, and that last season he batted well below the Mendoza line. It seemed to work, and Judge looked like the best hitter on the planet for the first few months, making his first All-Star team and winning the Home Run Derby in style (which, by the way, I predicted, but that’s neither here nor there) and seemed to be unstoppable.

Then the second half hit, and Judge did not.

The Regression

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(Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP)

Since the All-Star Break and his crowning as the MLB’s Home Run King, Judge has hit a putrid .175, eerily close to his noted debut BA. His strikeouts have gone up dramatically, and he doesn’t seem to be the same hitter. Everyone is looking around and wondering if the first few months were a fluke (cough, Eric Thames) or if this is just a bump in the road.

So what happened?

Let’s take a look at that leg-kick, shall we?

Here’s a GIF of Judge’s swing from his 2016 debut. Pay particular attention to his front leg and how high it goes as he gears up to swing:

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2016 Judge’s swing

You can see a gap between his front leg and back appear as his leg moves up, here’s a still shot of it:

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2016 freeze frame

Now let’s take a look at his shiny new swing that he debuted in 2017, the newer, more compact leg kick that helped him play like a stud. Pay attention again to the front leg and how high it goes:

giphy1

2017 Home Run swing

A lot lower, right? When he raises his leg it’s more of a lean than a kick, he barely picks it up at all. This shorter, more compact leg kick allows him to hang back on breaking balls as well as square up more easily on fastballs. You can no longer see any gap when he raises his front leg to swing.

Here’s a still of the leg kick to show the difference with the old, 2016 kick on the right and the new, 2017 kick on the left:

So clearly shortening up that leg kick did wonders for his power, contact, and plate discipline. Not that that’s the only reason he improved from 2016 to now, but it’s a big one.

Now let’s take a look at his leg kick post-All-Star-Break from this year, after he began slumping. Pay attention (again) to that front leg and how high it goes:

giphy2

This wasn’t even a swing, it was a strikeout, but when you watch that front leg it’s already being raised and kicked higher than his early 2017 swing. Here’s a still image side-by-side of his early 2017 (aka “good”) swing and kick versus the above, post-All-Star-Break (aka “bad”) swing and kick. The “good” swing with the lower kick is on the right, the “bad” swing with the higher kick is on the left, both are from this year (2017):

Looks like Judge fell back into old habits, but not quite so bad as before. His 2016 kick (not pictured above) is still a lot higher than his current “slump” kick, but his current “slump” kick is higher than his “good” pre-All-Star-Break kick.

Why is he doing this? What happened to the leg kick?

In my observation this slump is becoming more mental than physical, and his frustration is causing him to regress and slide away from his new 2017 leg kick and closer to the old, 2016 leg kick. Judge is a rookie who came into the season fighting for a roster spot before quickly transforming into the crooked but lovable face of baseball. I think those newfound expectations are weighing on him as he struggles to get out of his slump. Simply put? He’s pressing at the plate. He’s swinging more and thus striking out more. He’s trying too hard.

I’ve watched most of his games since his 2016 callup, and let me tell you, I have never seen Judge get angry, pout, sulk, or show frustration. He doesn’t throw helmets, yell at umps, kick dirt, roll his eyes, slam his bat on the ground, or the old Robbie Cano half-trot to first when he pops out. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen Judge shake his head and roll his eyes up in frustration at least 3-4 times. This slump is getting to him.

So What Does This Mean?

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(Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The good news is that this is fixable. Judge and Cockrell, the Yankees hitting coach, have already worked through this issue before. Judge is struggling right now, which is causing him to press, which is causing him to regress a bit in his swing and his stance, thus causing him to lose some of the gains he made by adjusting his leg kick. It’s also not a total regression-to-debut: despite his leg kick being higher in August than in June, it’s still a much lower leg kick than 2016, which is good. As I noted above, I can see his frustration mounting. Again, this is fixable. He’s got a great attitude, and in baseball it just takes a couple solid games for a hitter to feel like they’re back on track.

More encouraging are his peripherals. When we look at his deep stats from the first and (admittedly brief) second half, we see some glaring disparities. Specifically, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and his Hard Hit Percentage, which I believe are closely tied together. The harder you hit the ball, the more likely it will not be caught by the defenders, and the more successful you will be. Thus, high Hard Hit Percentage should equate to a higher BABIP. This is one of the reasons that I stated that Judge’s insanely high 1st half BABIP was, indeed, deserved: because he’s so insanely big and strong that he just physically hits the ball harder than other human beings.

So let’s take a look:

Hard Hit Percentage BABIP
1st Half 49.0% 0.426
2nd Half 27.3% 0.231
Change -21.7% -0.195

Those are some big drops, and one follows the other. Dramatically lower Hard Hit Percent? That’s gonna cause his dramatically lower BABIP, and thus dramatically lower his Batting Average, OBP, and Slugging.

The question is why his Hard Hit dropped so much. He certainly didn’t get any weaker: he’s the same gigantic, strong dude he was in April. It’s his leg kick, and the mechanics that cause him to swing under baseballs or miss them entirely because of the leg kick.

I fully expect that Hard Hit Percentage to climb, and fast. Judge is too good and too strong to carry a 27.3% Hard Hit number, and that should be back in the high-40-range in no time. Once that happens, the BABIP, and thus his counting stats, will rise back to pre-ASB Judge levels.

For those who point to plate discipline or suggest, as this ESPN article does, that Judge is being pitched differently and cannot hit what pitchers are throwing him, I say this: that’s a symptom, not a cause.

Judge’s plate discipline might seem off: he’s striking out in the second half at an alarming 36.6% clip compared to his first half K-rate of 29.8%, however, he is also walking at a higher rate of 19.8% compared to his first half BB-rate of 16.7%. In fact, with the exception of his extraordinary June which saw him walk at a 22% clip, July and August have been his best two months individually for BB-rate, meaning that as the season goes on, he is walking more, thus continuing to see the ball well and be selective with pitches. Everyone is quick to point to his atrocious .175 batting average in the second half, but he also owns a .337 OBP in the second half, meaning he receives a boost of 162 points of OBP over his AVG. That’s damn impressive by any measure. Those are numbers that would make Joey Votto jealous. In his historic first half? Judge was good for a.329 BA and a .448 OBP: still outstanding, but the math shows that his OBP in the first half was “only” 119 points above his Batting Average. In short, when you set aside his atrocious average in the 2nd half, Judge is getting on base at an ever better rate than the first half. Once his AVG normalizes, that OBP will be even more elite than it already looks.

The Judge’s Verdict

Aaron Judge will be absolutely fine. Not just in his bright future, but to finish out this sensational rookie season. Judge has been slumping in the second half, there’s no doubt about that. ESPN says the league’s pitchers are catching up to him, but his elite BB-rate and insane OBP numbers show that he’s not missing anything they’re throwing. Some prognosticators say that the HR Derby slowed him down, but Judge still has 5 HR in just 20 games in the second half.

The leg kick that he fixed in the offseason has reared it’s ugly head back up, but he has not regressed in his swing and kick to the point of last season, and what he and Cockrell fixed once, they will fix again. He’s a rookie with massive expectations (and shoulders) set upon him by his first half, and he appears to be pressing at the plate, which is causing him to regress slightly to his old swing habits and build up frustration. Again, this is fixable. He’s still the strongest hitter in baseball. Judge still has a great eye and elite plate discipline (2 BB’s last night despite going hitless), and once he settles down his average will return to the low-.300 range to finish out the season.

To Judge owners: don’t worry, he’ll turn things around by the end of the month. And while he does, you can still enjoy the 5 HR, 12 RBI pace that he’s set in just under two dozen games since the ASB. Even when he’s struggling, he’s still hitting bombs and getting on base like crazy.

The Beer

Today’s beer hails from Massachusetts’ own Clown Shoes Brewing: the Josh the Guava King double IPA (I promise I didn’t pick it because it had my name in it).

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Clown Shoes’s wonderfully named DIPA clocks in at 8% ABV and pours a hazy, coppery orange with a decent head of quickly disappearing foam and decent lacing on the glass.

The aroma is tropical, citrusy, fruity, with the guava being noticeable. The taste mostly follows the nose, and I was pleasantly surprised by the guava balance they were able to achieve in here. I’m not typically a fan of fruited IPAs and I prefer them to be more subtle, and Clown Shoes did that perfectly with Josh the Guava King.

On the tongue it’s nicely carbonated with a medium body. The malt backbone gives some subtle toasted caramel to balance out the sweetness from the tropical fruity flavors, and the guava mostly comes in on the back-end of the sip and with the aftertaste, but in a nicely balanced way. It’s nicely flavored but a little light on the hops and bitterness, and I would probably not have known it was a DIPA doing a blind taste-test.

All in all it’s a good, beer, well above average, and especially for a guava IPA. It didn’t’ knock my socks off but it was a lovely brew that I’d gladly drink again. Guava-heads should seek this one out, it’s one of the best and purest guava-flavors I’ve had in a beer.

Until next time, cheers!

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